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The Unalachtigo of South Jersey

The Unalachtigo of South Jersey
The Indians who inhabited New Jersey at the time the Europeans came called themselves Lenni Lenape, which literally means "Men of Men", but is translated to mean "Original People". The English colonists called them "Delawares", after the river and bay along the banks and tributaries of which most of them lived. The Unalachtigo (People Who Live Near the Ocean) inhabited the southern part of the state in an area extending from just north of Camden, across the state to the Delaware Bay.

The Unalachtigo were a peaceful, industrious, and quiet people who established relatively permanent villages, leaving them only in their quest for food or furs. We are told that all Lenni Lenape were somewhat similar to one another in appearance; most of them were of medium height, and their bodies were well proportioned, slender, and straight. Their hair was coarse and black; their beards were scanty.

For the most part, the Unalachtigo were not a warlike people, no doubt because there was little reason for intertribal conflict. There were probably never more than 10,000 Lenni Lenape living in the entire state of New Jersey. At the time Cumberland County was settled, there were perhaps 600 Indians living within this area, occupying villages along the Cohansey River near Greenwich and along the Maurice River.

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All of southern New Jersey was covered with open forest. That is, there was little or no underbrush other than in the relatively few areas where the original forest had been destroyed by fire or hurricane. Such areas were easily avoided when hunting or traveling. The territory occupied by the Unalachtigo was crossed by four major trails from the Delaware River to the ocean. The first, known as "The Old Cape Trail," originated at Trenton and ended near Somers Point. The second, beginning at Burlington, joined the Cohansey Trail and continued to Cape May. The third started at Camden and ended near Toms River. The fourth, the "Cohansey Trail," began at Burlington and ran through what is now Camden, Gloucester, Salem, Cumberland, and Cape May counties.

There were countless intermediate trails formed by the hunters and by the Indian people for the purpose of inter-village visiting. These trails were used as roads by the colonists when they settled the area. It was not until about the time for the Revolution that the roads of Cumberland County were sufficiently developed to permit the use of wheeled vehicles. Most travel by the early settlers was by horseback or by water.

The Lenni Lenape did not live in the portable skin-covered teepee so often pictured as the Indian home. The most common form of shelter in the southern part of New Jersey was a rectangular house measuring approximately ten by twenty feet. In building their homes, the Indians drove saplings into the ground about two or three feet apart, outlining the size and the shape of the house. The slender tops of the saplings were bent and lashed together so as to form an arched or vaulted roof. Other thin saplings were tied crosswise over the upright poles to make the framework more secure. The frame was then shingled with large pieces of bark peeled with stone tools from elm, chestnut or cedar trees. The shingles were tied to the frame and chinked with clay or mud to make them weatherproof.

Inside the house raised platforms built around the walls provided a storage place beneath them, while the surface of the platform sewed as seats, tables, and beds. The walls were covered with mats made of reeds or rushes. Poles were fastened near the ceiling, and from them dried foods and other family possessions were suspended. There was an opening in the roof and under it was a fireplace consisting of a circle of stones.

The Unalachtigo village was always located near a stream or river in order that water for their bathing and cooking would be available and that their canoes would be near at hand.

For more South Jersey History, visit our South Jersey History page.

Author: R. Cohen


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